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May 27, 2021

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Before “new normal” and “unprecedented times” became part of everyday language, about 20 providers in the South Carolina network were using telehealth for behavioral health care. Today, there are more than 2,700 providers in the state approved to deliver telehealth services. Requests for telehealth services have increased by over 25,000 percent. The number of people looking for behavioral health outpatient services is up as well and in 2021 we continue to see the numbers of claims for telehealth behavioral health services increase.

As the world moves to recover as much prepandemic life as possible, the question becomes how the pandemic will change behavioral health care long term. Even as more people get vaccinations and case counts drop, providers continue to deliver behavioral health care remotely, says Dr. April Richardson, a medical director with BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina and a psychiatrist in Greenville. 

“That indicates those services are going to continue after this is all settled,” she says. 

The surge in telehealth options came just as the demand for behavioral health services skyrocketed. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 40 percent of U.S. adults reported struggling with mental health or substance use last summer. 

“We’re seeing increases in the severity of symptoms nationally, but we’re also seeing reduced stigma associated with voicing behavioral health needs. At the same time, we have increased access points and the convenience of telehealth services. All of those factors come into play, and we see more people using behavioral health outpatient services than ever before,” Richardson says. 

Recent studies have shown increases in the number of people identifying symptoms and more acceptance toward getting help for behavioral health needs. 

“That indicates a trend that is going to continue because the pandemic has increased a lot of these symptoms and made it much more common to talk about receiving care,” she says. 

The employer side mirrors this trend as more groups show interest in behavioral health care options for their employees. 

“If employers are focused on making sure their employees receive quality behavioral health services, removing barriers to getting treatment and highlighting those benefits to members under that plan, the less of a stigma there is,” Richardson says. 

Before the pandemic, few providers used telehealth. Today, consumer preference for telehealth services may push providers to continue offering virtual services moving forward. 

Going virtual helped providers reach far corners of the state. Some specialized behavioral health services that were located only in some parts of the state, such as counselors specializing in eating disorder treatment, could not provide more wide-spread access through telehealth.  This opens up opportunities for behavioral health care in rural areas that may not have had easy access before the pandemic. 

More companies and start-ups have also launched products in the wake of the pandemic to deliver behavioral health services remotely. This will have an impact on the long-term effects of the pandemic. 

“There’s been a huge increase in the amount of money directed toward behavioral health care,” Richardson says. “We're going to see a lot more digital options for people to receive behavioral health services in the future. Digital behavioral health care is going to significantly expand over the next several years.” 

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